The Waves

Modern Voices: Challenges to the Linear Narrative in ‘The Waves’ and ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’

November 9, 2021 by Essay Writer

For the modernists, the linear narrative was something of a constraint on the writer’s ability to express their ideas and perceptions of the world. To discard the linear narrative, therefore, seemed the most logical solution to this problem. As Virginia Woolf writes in her 1925 essay ‘Modern Fiction’:

‘[The modernists] attempt to come closer to life, and to preserve more sincerely and exactly what interests and moves them, even if to do so they must discard most of the conventions which are commonly observed by the novelist.’[1]

In her novel The Waves, Woolf follows her own advice, abandoning linear narrative and the traditional use of authorial voice so as to provide a distinct and wholly unique vision of life. This discarding of linear narrative is something also done by the poet Wallace Stevens, who, in his poems ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ and ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’, presents a form defined by multiple perspectives and dissonance.

In The Waves Virginia Woolf utilizes the musical device of polyphony so as to disrupt linear narrative and provide a form of language that accurately portrays her interpretation of human consciousness and experience of the physical world. Polyphony, which is the layering of separate and independent melodies in music, arises at various points in the book to provide numerous experiences of the same moment in time. The novel’s form is intrinsically linked to polyphony, Woolf structuring the novel to be constructed of groups of soliloqieys from its six central characters: Bernard, Louis, Neville, Rhoda, Jinny and Susan, these sections separated by interludes in which a seaside setting is described in extensive detail. By placing numerous soliloquies in sequence with one another Woolf provides a multifaceted view of the world, presenting the reader with multiple perspectives of single events instantaneously.

One example of polyphonic soliloquies is in the first section describing the lives of the main characters as children. Louis has hidden in a hedge and through a slit in the branches observes the rest of group as they play in a garden. He then says ‘Now something pink passes the eyehole […] She has found me. I am struck on the nape of the neck. She has kissed me.’[2] This is paired with Jinny saying ‘What moved the leaves? […] I dashed in here, seeing you green as a bush, like a branch, very still, Louis, […] I thought, and kissed you’. At the same instance of time Susan also says ‘Through the chink in the hedge […] I saw her kiss him.’ Within a linear narrative framework this series of events would be recounted in chronological and order solely in the past tense. Through a polyphonic collage and thus fractured non-linear narrative, however, Woolf lends the scene a sense of immediacy through the use of both past and present tense. By discarding linear narrative Woolf presents a more realistic representation of individual time, not a single line with a series of events placed upon it, but rather multiple timelines criss-crossing mutual points of experience. Woolf’s version of the modernist novel thus overtly rejects the narrative conventions of realism. As Jane Wheare notes, in ‘The Waves, largely through the novelty of her method, Woolf draws attention to the process of narration which one normally takes for granted in reading a “realist” novel.’[3]

The layering of voices so as to disrupt linear narrative and thus reinvent the role of voice is something that it also important when considering Wallace Stevens’s poem ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’. In the poem the narrator presents to the reader his observations as he watches a woman sing by the ocean, the sound of her voice and the sound of the sea coming together to such a degree that the narrator finds it difficult to distinguish the two apart. In the poems first stanza Stevens makes note of three distinct sounds: the voice of the singer, the sound made by the flow of water and the sound caused by this flow interacting with its environment. Stevens writes that the sound of the ocean was a ‘mimic motion’[4] as it ‘Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry’. [Line 5] The use of constant and the adverb constantly creates a sense that the ocean noise is something of a control variable when perceiving the scene. While the singer ‘sang beyond the genius of the sea’, [Line 1] the sea has been continually making noise. This places the singer’s voice atop the noise of the sea, like the fifth in a triadic chord. A triadic chord consists of three notes, and thus the two remaining sounds of the sea are left to complete it. As it can be assumed that something has to be made before it can cause something else in a chain reaction, the sound of the flow of water should become the chord’s root, while the sound caused by this flow becomes the third.

It should not be read, however, that Stevens merges the sounds into one. In the same way that Woolf makes distinction between the voices of Louis, Jinny and Susan, Stevens shows the reader that the three sounds are still separate and individual, merely brought together by the sensory experience of the narrator. Stevens writes:

‘The song and water were not medleyed sound

Even if what she sang was what she heard,

Since what she sang was uttered word by word.’ [Lines 8-10]

By not being ‘medleyed’ the song and the dual noises that the water produces remain individual, linked only by the imagination of both the narrator and the singer, the singer only being inspired by the sea as it ‘was what she heard’. Her song is a distinct and wholly separate sound as Stevens writers her song is projected through language ‘word by word’, while the noise of the sea is merely ‘The grinding of water and the gasping of the sea’, [Stevens, Line 13] ‘The heaving speech of air’. [Line 26] A triadic chord, though coming together to produce a single melody, is made of three wholly separate notes and this poem, the inspiration of which could be seen as a melody, recalls three distinct sounds. Stevens thus rejects a linear framework to observe that what we experience through our senses is not necessarily what is happening in reality. It could be argued that Stevens capitalizes upon musical devices to disrupt linear narrative in ‘The Idea of Order…’, using musical theory to present a particular view of reality. Anca Rosu argues that you could read ‘Stevens as a “musical” poet […] by following the development of musical themes in his poetry’.[5] Stevens layers voice over sound, anthropomorphizing the water and creating a three tonal narrative, following suite with Woolf and rejecting linear narrative.

It is notable, however, that there is a level of difficulty in separating individual voices in both The Waves and ‘The Idea of Order…’, at times it seems more convincing that both Woolf and Stevens are presenting a single voice rather than multiple different ones speaking polyphonically at the same time. If this were true, then some level of linear narrative would be retained by Woolf and Stevens as tropes of realism would become noticeable within their work. It is in The Waves perhaps more so than in the poetry of Stevens that this problem becomes apparent. The soliloquies of the six main characters are written in the same prosaic language and often at times the reader can become disorientated, forgetting by whom the soliloquy is being given. There are also points where the novel itself becomes conscious of this problem. In the final soliloquy of the novel Bernard says ‘And now I ask, “Who am I?” I have been talking of Bernard, Neville, Jinny, Susan, Rhoda and Louis. Am I all of them? Am I one and distinct? I do not know.’ [pg. 222] This quotation brings into the question the validity of the novels narration. Has the novel simply been of one consciousness fractured into six voices each with its specific position and perspective: Jinny and elation, Neville and beauty, Rhoda and gloom for example, and thus some form of barely linear interior monologue. Are we, as Bernard asks, all of them? Or is the novel’s narrative what we have been lead to assume, six different characters leading six autonomous lives.

I would argue that the novel follows the latter form of narrative. As the style of prose does not change throughout the novel, remaining the same in all the soliloquies as well as the interludes in which the seascape is depicted, the reader has to rely on specific symbols and cues that Woolf provides them to recognize the voice of each character. The most obvious of these signs and symbols are the introductions to the soliloquies, each one beginning with a two word phrasing stating which character is speaking, ‘—said’. In the first group of soliloquies this makes the text easy to read and assign names to speech, but only due to the short length of the soliloquies:

‘“I see a ring,” said Bernard, “hanging above me. It quivers and hangs in a loop of light.”

“I see a slab of pale yellow,” said Susan, “spreading away until it meets a purple stripe.”’ [pg. 5]

Later on in the novel, however, when the soliloquies may run for several pages the reader can forget who is speaking and it is here that tropes specific to each character become important. Bernard, for example, can be recognized due to his obsession with language and the search for the perfect phrase, Louis often repeats versions of the phrase ‘My father is a banker in Brisbane and I speak with an Australian accent’, [pg. 13] and Rhoda is characterized by a feeling of unidentifiable unhappiness and lack of importance, her signature tone following that of ‘here I am nobody. I have no face.’ [pg. 23] Lorraine Sim writes that ‘it is only in rare moments that the separate characters or points of view represented […] share a common experience or understanding of the world.’[6] By connecting characters to the narrative not through the reader necessarily following plot but rather by recognizing signs and signifiers, Woolf places a great importance upon the role of voice. Woolf presents a world where meaning is derived not by experience but by symbols of the individual’s character. The reader must truly know the voices of the six characters to follow the fractured plot of the novel and thus Woolf places character development, signs and symbols as more important than plot. Linear narrative is once again rejected for a form of narrative that allows Woolf to place greater emphasis on signs and symbols as key components of reality.

The notion of symbols taking more significance than plot derived from a linear narrative structure is something that is important when reading Stevens’s poem ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’. This poem abandons linear narrative altogether, the poem consisting of thirteen totally separate stanzas only connected by the focus on the blackbird. Unlike in ‘The Idea of Order…’, Stevens presents no train of thought, no argument, no setting or plot. The poem could be read as a poetic exorcise or experiment and perhaps an active investigation into ideas of form, structure and language. Thirteen different perspectives are given, suggesting that a single outlook on existence would be counterproductive while living life, Lee Margaret Jenkins writing that the poem ‘attests to the redundancy of any single “way of looking.”’[7] It could be argued, furthermore, that ‘Thirteen Ways…’ is a poem totally made of symbols as no meaning or plot can be easily if at all taken away.

The central symbol is of course the blackbird which is the only thing to appear in all thirteen stanzas of the poem. What the blackbird symbolizes however changes from stanza to stanza. For example, in Stanza II: ‘The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds. / It was a small part of the pantomime’[8], the blackbird comes to symbolize the cyclical nature of the seasons, while in Stanza VI the blackbird symbolizes humanities fear of the unknown and misunderstood. Other symbols arise, such as a focus on the seasons: autumn in Stanza II, winter in Stanzas I and VI and spring in Stanza XII, ‘The river is moving. / The blackbird must be flying.’ [Lines 48-49] Shadows are repeatedly mentioned as symbols of a phenomenological perspective of life’s experiences, while phenomenology is once again mentioned in Stanza IX when considering our immediate environment:

‘When the blackbird flew out of sight,

It marked the edge

Of one of many circles.’ [Lines 35-37]

Once again it appears that Stevens and Woolf follow a similar stylistic dictum; in literature multiple perspectives consisting of symbols are what define our existence rather than a linear narrative where meaning is largely derived from a single plot.

Both Woolf, in The Waves, and Stevens, in ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’ and ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’, have clearly rejected all notions of linear narrative. In The Waves Woolf provides the reader with a form of novel with clearly abandons linear narrative, instead using polyphonic collages of voice to present a more realistic interpretation of time and replacing plot with a reliance on symbolic language. Stevens similarly layers voices, taking a far more directly musical approach than Woolf but follows suite when opting for symbolism over plot. By taking similar approaches to the narrative structures of their works, both Woolf and Stevens are able to show the limits of the linear narrative framework. For them both, linear narrative seems to have been abandoned due to its inability to accurately represent their nuanced and highly specific interpretations of human existence. The human experience is far too complex and variety of our experiences is too great to be accurately represented in a simple linear narrative. Both Woolf and Wallace have thus found forms and structures of literature that suite their needs and fit their vision: ruptured, complex and full of ambiguity.


Jenkins, Lee M., Wallace Stevens: Rage of Order, [Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2000]

Rosu, Anca, The Metaphysics of Sound in Wallace Stevens, [Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995]

Sim, Lorraine, Virgina Woolf: The Patterns of Ordinary Experience, [Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2010]

Stevens, Wallace, ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’, in Modernism: An Anthology, ed. by Lawrence Rainey [Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005]

Stevens, Wallace, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45236/thirteen-ways-of-looking-at-a-blackbird, [accessed 17/12/14]

Wheare, Jane, Virginia Woolf: Dramatic Novelist, [London: The Macmillan Press, 1989]

Woolf, Virginia, ‘Modern Fiction’, in Modernism: An Anthology, ed. by Lawrence Rainey [Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005]

Woolf, Virginia, The Waves, [London: Penguin Classics. 2011]

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